Tag Archives: Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

In Wichita, if you don’t like it, just don’t go there

As Wichita city officials prepare a campaign to raise the sales tax in Wichita, let’s recall some council members’ attitude towards citizens.

At a Wichita City Council meeting in August 2012, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

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Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups

city-council-chambers-sign-800On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

The proposed resolution expresses support for retaining the present system in which city council and school board members are elected in non-partisan elections held in the spring. Candidates for all other offices (county commissioner, district court judge, district attorney, county clerk, county treasurer, register of deeds, sheriff, state representative, state senator, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, insurance commissioner, state board of education member, president, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, etc.) compete in partisan elections held in August and November.

Yes, the proposed resolution is full of language supporting lofty ideals. It mentions local control, concern over low voter turnout, the complexity of making changes, partisan politics, and even the Hatch Act, whatever that is.

(The Hatch Act restricts the ability of federal executive branch employees and certain state and local government employees to participate in some political activities, such as running for office in partisan elections. Non-partisan elections — that’s okay. The city is concerned that this could “disqualify many local candidates and office holders.” As if anyone already working for government also should also be an officeholder, non-partisan election or not.)

Why should we be concerned? Why would the city council support the current system of spring elections? Doesn’t the city council always act in the best interests of the body politic?

Here’s the answer, quite simply: In the spring elections, voter turnout is low. This makes it easier for special interest groups to influence the election outcomes. These special interest groups are not your friends (unless you are a member of one of the special groups).

Voter turnout is low in spring elections. Really low. I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent. That’s less than the turnout for a single-question election on year later.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

In the same paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

Moving the spring elections so they are held in conjunction with the fall state and national elections will help reduce the electoral power and influence of special interest groups.

An example of special interests influencing elections

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports covering calendar year 2012. That year was the ramp-up period for elections that were held in February and March 2013. Two filings in particular illustrate the need for campaign finance and election reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who had indicated their intent to run in the spring 2013 elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from only two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents during an entire year. Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

You may be wondering: Do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. Both groups are symptomatic of the problem of special interests influencing low-turnout elections. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for details.

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Wichita campaign finance reform, and local elections in Kansas

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In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: An illustration of the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas. A related issue is the need to change the timing of local elections in Kansas. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who have indicated their intent to run in the spring elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents. As the election grew nearer, other parties contributed to these candidates. But for one year, only two groups made contributions.

So do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else? Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. We’ve covered the benefits these parties have received, such as overpriced no-bid contracts and interest-free loans made to prop up an earlier failing loan from taxpayers. We need laws in Wichita and Kansas like some states and cities have. These are generally called pay to play laws, and they can be very simple, such as elected officials can’t vote on matters that enrich their significant campaign contributors. It could be that easy. See Kansas needs pay-to-play laws for more.

Here’s something that seems inconsequential, but is really important: The timing of our city council and school board elections. Currently these are held in the spring of odd-numbered years. These elections are also non-partisan, meaning that candidates don’t run as members of a political party.

I was asked to testify before a committee of the Kansas Senate. In preparation, I did some research. I found that for elections in Sedgwick County, voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent. Other research I found confirmed that this pattern is common across the country.

You may be asking: Is this a problem?

Political scientist Sarah Anzia has done the research. She wrote this in a research paper: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” For more on this issue, see Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Special interest groups benefit from these low-turnout spring elections. Do you remember the first story I reported on today, where campaign contributions for two Wichita city council members came from only two sources? That’s an illustration of special interest groups in action. It’s harmful to our city and its economy.

What happened to the bill I testified on? There was much opposition by cities and school boards and the special interest groups that benefit from these low-turnout, off-cycle elections. The bill went nowhere. I hope that it is revived this year for another attempt.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, in July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

WichitaLiberty.TV August 25, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks leads viewers through the first two chapters of Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” using cartoons created by Amanda BillyRock. It’s about looking at not only the immediate effects but at the longer effects of any act or policy; and tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. Amanda uses the parable of the broken window to illustrate. Then, Bob wonders about an evaluation committee formed by the City of Wichita to vet downtown development partners: Did the committee overlook important information, and why didn’t the city council object as its members had previously? Episode 10, broadcast August 25, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita’s evaluation of development team should be reconsidered

Dump truck carrying coinsIn an effort to avoid mistakes made in the past and inspire confidence in the process, parties wishing to receive economic development subsidies for projects in downtown Wichita are evaluated on a variety of measures. The evaluation matrix released for a project to be considered next week by the Wichita City Council, however, ought to be recalculated.

City documents describe one of two competing projects as this: “River Vista is proposed by River Vista LLC, a development group comprised of George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren.”

wichita-evaluation-matrix-2013-08

It’s this ownership team that ought to cause the city concern. Two of the evaluation criteria are “Past project experience with the City of Wichita” and “References, especially from other municipal partners.” This development team was awarded the maximum number of points possible for each (points being a positive measure). Here are a few things that the evaluation committee may not have considered when awarding these points.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Despite these two cost overruns on city projects, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote in a letter recommending Key Construction on a different matter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” Maybe that’s what the evaluation committee relied on.

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. This no-bid contract awarded to Key was cronyism in the extreme. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for an example of how Key Construction has mastered political cronyism.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.’”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.’”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

With the history of these parties working in public-private partnerships, the Wichita City Council needs to question the matrix delivered by the evaluation committee.

Could Wichita be the next Detroit?

That Detroit has declared bankruptcy: Does this mean anything for Wichita? From time to time we see news stories wondering if there is a parallel between these two cities — one known as Motor City, and the other as the Air Capital.

wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentration

The similarity is the concentrated nature of the economies of the two cities. Both have, as can be seen in the nearby chart, a greater percentage of jobs in manufacturing than does the United States as a whole.

Furthermore, when considering the dominant manufacturing industry in each city, we see that Wichita is more concentrated in aviation than Detroit is in automobiles. Much more concentrated, 13 percent to six percent.

Joseph Ashby on Wichita and Detroit.

On his radio show, Joseph Ashby talked about the business of making airplanes. He’s an aerospace engineer. The complexity of airplane manufacturing, he says, has protected the domestic industry from foreign competition. But that can change. I would say that change is likely.

Ashby also noted that our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive. He isn’t the first to wonder about this. In 2010 Alan Cobb wrote:

What can we do to prevent Wichita from falling into the hole that is Detroit?

A simple answer is to continue throwing money and other goodies to keep the aviation companies. A better answer is we need to get rid of the notion that our elected officials and others have so much forethought to know what will or won’t be successful in 20 or 50 years. They don’t. …

While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up. …

It‘s the classic example of the seen vs. the unseen. We see the new factory Pontiac builds. We don’t see the businesses that reduce their size, close or just move. The irony is we will still see the Pontiac factory after it is closed and boarded up.

For each tax dollar given to the auto industry, one is taken one away from entrepreneurs trying to create the next GM, Ford, Google or Apple. This may not be too bad the first time or the second time, but over years and decades, the results can be significant. The “next big thing” will be created in a state with a better tax and regulatory climate. (Detroit, corporate welfare and Wichita’s future)

This week the Sedgwick County Commission will be asked to make a forgivable loan — in essence, a grant of free money — to an aerospace company. The City of Wichita will likely be asked to do the same. The State of Kansas is probably offering additional business welfare, although the state won’t say. These actions increase the cost of business for the firms that we need to diversify our economy, and makes it more difficult for them to survive.

Here’s something else: Wichita has a lot of debt. Not Detroit levels, thankfully. But we can’t borrow even $30 million to build a new library without swelling debt ratios over acceptable limits.

How does Wichita have so much debt? Here’s an example. Recently the city spent $400,000 on a project to analyze aging fire stations with the aim of planning future projects. Fire stations are a long-lived capital asset, which is the type of asset and spending spending that is commonly financed with long-term debt. But an analysis to see if the spending is necessary and what type of spending is needed? This is current consumption and should not be paid for by long-term debt. Yet, the city paid for this with borrowed funds. This type of borrowing is common.

Finally, a big problem that contributed to Detroit’s problems is corruption. Wichita isn’t Detroit when it comes to corruption. But we could be headed that way. We have serious problems like overpriced no-bid contracts for the mayor’s fishing buddy, mysterious campaign contributions from a Michigan company involved in a large contract before the council, and a Methodist minister’s foray into real estate development and politics. We have city ordinances regarding ethics that seem to have a clear meaning, but the city attorney says they don’t apply.

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Notwithstanding these serious issues, it’s darkly comical to note this: Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer has voted several times to grant various forms of business welfare to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters. It still is, as of last week.

Are there no adults in the room?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 14, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks explains the attitude of the Wichita City Council regarding ethical behavior and reports on incidents that illustrate the need for campaign finance reform and pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. Also, Bob notices a document produced this year titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities” and wonders why the city boasts of expensive water projects and long-term planning at the same time it’s forcing an austerity campaign on its citizens. Episode 4, aired July 14, 2013.

Starwood calls on Wichita

Office worker using telephone and computer

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council considers economic development incentives to Starwood Hotels & Resorts for a call center to open in Wichita.

Besides the usual problems with cronyism and corporate welfare (see Wichita-area economic development policy changes proposed for explanation of some problems), there are a few issues to consider regarding this item.

First, the site where the Starwood call center will be located is owned by Max Cole. He and his wife are significant campaign contributors to Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). Under the concept of pay-to-play laws that Wichita needs, Clendenin should refrain from voting on this matter.

Second, a table of salaries supplied in the agenda packet makes an implied promise that probably won’t be kept. The table shows numbers of jobs (actually full-time equivalents), the hourly pay rate, and the annual wage. The annual wage, in all cases, is 2,080 times the hourly rate, meaning it is assumed that workers will work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

Information from the Kansas Department of Commerce offers more detail. Initially, 495 full-time and 55 part-time jobs will be created. In year five, the total will be 860 full-time and 95 part-time total. There is also this notation: “The company will pay at least 50% of employee health insurance benefits.”

As you may be aware, one of the provisions of Obamacare is that if employees work over 30 hours per week, the employer must provide health insurance or be fined. As a result, many companies across the county are scaling back weekly work hours to less than 30.

We ought to ask if Starwood intends to hire employees who will work 40 hours per week, if they want to. Will the liberals on the Wichita City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), and Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) — ask that Starwood operate under the standards of Obamacare? The table presents data as “full-time equivalents,” which provides room for Starwood to go either way.

Starwood is asking for a forgivable loan of $200,000 from Wichita, and another of the same amount from Sedgwick County. I asked the Kansas Department of Commerce if it would reveal the programs and incentives that Starwood will receive from the State of Kansas. It would not supply that information at this time, but I obtained the information by another means. The state describes its offer to Starwood as worth “up to $1,583,272.” Of this, $750,000 would be in the form of direct cash grants.

Here is a link to the relevant pages from the Wichita city council agenda: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentive Agreement with City of Wichita, Kansas. Also, from the Department of Commerce: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentives offered by State of Kansas.

Ambassador Hotel Industrial Revenue Bonds

The City of Wichita should not approve a measure that is not needed, that does not conform to the city’s policy (based on relevant information not disclosed to citizens), and which is steeped in cronyism.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider authorizing industrial revenue bonds (IRB) for the Ambassador Hotel project in downtown Wichita.

In most cases, the major benefit of IRBs is exemption from paying property taxes. Since the Ambassador Hotel is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district, it’s not eligible for property tax abatement. (Because of the TIF, the developers have already achieved the diversion of the majority of their property tax payments away from the public treasury for their own benefit.)

Instead, in this case the benefit of the IRBs, according to city documents, is an estimated $703,017 in sales tax that the hotel won’t have to pay.

The Ambassador Hotel has benefited from many millions of taxpayer subsidy, both direct and indirect. So it’s a good question as to whether the hotel deserves another $703,017 from taxpayers.

But if we follow the city’s economic development policy, the city should not authorize the IRBs. Here’s why.

The Sedgwick County/City of Wichita Economic Development Policy states: “The ratio of public benefits to public costs, each on a present value basis, should not be less than 1.3 to one for both the general and debt service funds for the City of Wichita; for Sedgwick County should not be less than 1.3 overall.”

The policy also states that if the 1.3 to one threshold is not met, the incentive could nonetheless be granted if two of three mitigating factors are found to apply. But there is a limit, according to the policy: “Regardless of mitigating factors, the ratio cannot be less than 1.0:1.”

In September 2011 the city council passed a multi-layer incentive package for Douglas Place, now better known as the Ambassador Hotel and Block One. Here’s what the material accompanying the letter of intent that the council passed on August 9, 2011 held: “As part of the evaluation team process, the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research studied the fiscal impact of the Douglas Place project on the City’s General Fund, taking into account the requested incentives and the direct, indirect and induced generation of new tax revenue. The study shows a ratio of benefits to costs for the City’s General Fund of 2.62 to one.

The same 2.62 to one ratio is cited as a positive factor in the material prepared by the city for Tuesday’s meeting.

So far, so good. 2.62 is greater than the 1.3 that city policy requires. But the policy applies to both the general fund and the debt service fund. So what is the impact to the debt service fund? Here’s the complete story from the WSU CEDBR report (the report may be viewed at Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research Study of Ambassador Hotel):

                                   Cost-benefit ratio
City Fiscal Impacts General Fund         2.63
City Fiscal Impacts Debt Service Fund    0.83
City Fiscal Impacts                      0.90

We can see that the impact on the debt service fund is negative, and the impact in total is negative. (A cost-benefit ratio of less than one is “negative.”)

Furthermore, the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the general fund is $290,895, while the cost to the debt service fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large. That’s why even though the general fund impact is positive, the negative impact of the much larger debt service fund cost causes the overall impact to be unfavorable.

The city didn’t make this negative information available to the public in 2011, and it isn’t making it available now. It was made public only after I requested the report from WSU CEDBR. It is not known whether council members were aware of this information when they voted in 2011.

So the matter before the council this week doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policy standards. It’s not even close.

There are, however, other factors that may allow the city to grant an incentive: “In addition to the above provisions, the City Council and/or County Commission may consider the following information when deciding whether to approve an incentive.” A list of 12 factors follows, some so open-ended that the city can find a way to approve almost any incentive it wants.

A note: The policy cited above was passed in August 2012, after the Ambassador Hotel incentives package passed. But the 1.3 to one threshold was de facto policy before then, and whether a proposed incentive package met that standard was often a concern for council members, according to meeting minutes.

Timing and campaign contributions

Citizens might wonder why industrial revenue bonds are being issued for a hotel that’s complete and has been operating for over three months. The truly cynical might wonder why this matter is being handled just two weeks after the city’s general election on April 2, in which four city council positions were on the ballot. Would citizens disagree with giving a hotel $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness? Would that have an effect on the election?

Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Combine this timing with the practice of part of the hotel’s ownership team of engaging in cronyism at the highest level. Dave Burk and the principals and executives of Key Construction have a history of making campaign contributions to almost all city council candidates. Then the council rewards them with overpriced no-bid contracts, sweetheart lease deals, tax abatements, rebates of taxes their customers pay, and other benefits. The largesse dished out for the Ambassador Hotel is detailed here. This hotel, however, was not the first — or the last time — these parties have benefited from council action.

Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Campaign finance reports filed by two incumbent candidates illustrate the lengths to which Key Construction seeks to influence council members. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received a total of $7,000 from Key Construction affiliates in 2012. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, these were the only contributions she received in 2012.

A table of campaign contributions received by city council members and the mayor from those associated with the Ambassador Hotel is available here.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer will vote tomorrow whether to grant a company Wells is part owner of sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017.

This environment calls out for campaign finance reform, in particular laws that would prohibit what appears to be the practice of pay-to-play at Wichita City Hall.

There was a time when newspapers crusaded against this type of governance. Unfortunately for Wichitans, the Wichita Eagle doesn’t report very often on this issue, and the editorial board is almost totally silent. Television and radio news outlets don’t cover this type of issue. It’s left to someone else to speak out.

Wichitans have choices; perhaps not information

The Wichita Eagle publishes a voter guide before each election. While this is a useful civic service, readers of the newspaper might wonder what is the point of allowing candidates to make statements and claims without being held accountable.

Here are two examples of candidates responding to the question “Assess the city’s success in downtown revitalization so far. How do you see that role evolving in the future?”

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) responded as follows:

The trend in downtown redevelopment is showing a definite payoff in private investment exceeding $250 million since 2009. People are moving downtown and more private developers are starting projects in the area all of the time. I think that the city will still need to play a role in assuring that infrastructure, especially public green spaces and strategically placed parking, is in place so that private development can be attracted.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) answered this way:

Wichita adopted its Downtown Master Plan in 2010 following an 18-month process involving input from several thousand Wichitans. Since the plan’s adoption, there has been a growing confidence in downtown development, which has resulted in more than $150 million in private investment. The City’s role will be to continue to foster private investment supported by public infrastructure improvements where needed.

Both incumbent candidates claim a large investment in downtown Wichita. Although they didn’t make this claim in these answers, it’s usually claimed that the taxpayer investment in downtown pays off in the form of increased tax revenues. This is the cost-benefit analysis that the city relies on and uses to justify taxpayer investment in projects.

 Wichita Downtown Self-supporting Municipal Improvement District SSMID Assessed Valuation 2013-02 b

But evidence of a payoff for the taxpayer is hard to find. At the same time hundreds of millions in investment is claimed, the assessed value of property in downtown Wichita is declining.

We’re left to wonder whether readers of the Wichita Eagle are aware of the apparent contradiction between candidates’ claims and evidence from the real world.

On another issue, the influence of campaign contributions, readers of the Eagle will probably also be uninformed about candidates’ actions. In response to the question “How would you handle a vote on an issue involving a campaign contributor?” Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) supplied this answer:

No different than any other vote. I will vote for the best interest of the citizens Wichita and District III. I answer directly to the voters.

Williams answered the same question this way:

I would continue to handle it the way I always have. The city has good campaign finance laws that make sure no one individual or group can buy a council person’s vote. The law limits the contributions to a low enough amount that no one contribution can make or break a campaign. I treat each donation whether large or small the same and thank the community for their faith and support in what I do.

The candidates’ lofty claims of independence from campaign contributions are difficult to believe. There is simply too much money given, and the candidates’ actions are too suspect.

As an example, in 2012, these two candidates received campaign contributions from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The problem is that both of these groups have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Williams was also the beneficiary of campaign contributions immediately before a Methodist minister asked the city to approve over two million dollars in tax increment financing. In 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

By the way, this project, under Harding’s management, foundered until the city council offered a bailout. By then Harding had found new partners. No surprise these partners included Key Construction, Williams’ sole source of campaign funds in 2012.

Wichitans who rely on the Wichita Eagle for advice on voting won’t likely be aware of these facts regarding these candidates.

Wichita economic development and the election

Ballot box

As Wichitans decide their preference for city council members, voters should take a look at the numbers and decide whether they’re satisfied with our city’s performance in economic development.

As shown in the article Wichita economic statistics, Wichita is not doing well in key economic statistics. Debt has risen rapidly in recent years. Growth of private sector jobs lags far behind the nation and the state of Kansas, and government jobs have grown faster than private sector jobs. While inflation-adjusted spending per person is holding relatively steady, the city is cutting services and generally sending a message of budgetary distress.

Perhaps most astonishing: With all the public money poured into downtown redevelopment, with all the claims of new projects being competed, and with all the talk of building up the tax base, assessed valuation in downtown Wichita is declining.

In his recent State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer called for increased effort and funding for economic development, specifically job creation. He, and most of Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders, believe that more targeted economic development incentives are needed to boost Wichita’s economy.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them. Kansas and Wichita should chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That, in turn, will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. In most years, the number of jobs that officials take credit for creating or saving is just a small part of the labor force, often less than one percent.

Rarely mentioned are the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them. This means that economic activity and jobs are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Also, some of these jobs would have been created without the city’s efforts. All the city should take credit for is the marginal activity that it purportedly created. Government usually claims credit for everything, however.

Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s starting to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

The incumbents running for reelection to city council have been in office varying lengths of time. All, however, subscribe to the interventionist model of economic development championed by the mayor. That’s the model that hasn’t been working for Wichita.

If voters in Wichita are truly concerned about economic development for everyone, next week’s election provides an opportunity to make a positive change by bring new voices to the city council.

Dump truck carrying coins

Is graft a problem in Wichita?

Dump truck carrying coins

In his paper History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat.

Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita?

Yes. Absolutely. As explained in In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform, we have a problem.

An example: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

As elections approach, Wichita voters ought to remember that the three incumbents running for reelection all accepted campaign contributions from the parties that they voted to reward with an overpriced no-bid construction contract.

Following, Greg Schmid explains the problem in this excerpt from History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America:

The Problem
Graft is nothing new in the world, especially soft “white collar” corruption involved in the award of government contracts based on “special relationships” between public officials and government contractors. Particular acts of corruption are often hard to detect, one at a time, but the aggregate effects of “Pay to Play” are reflected by the heavy financial toll that corrupted actors within our government system take on the taxpayer. Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefitof corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices. Graft increases the cost of government by motivating officials “on the take” to mismanage government project spending. An inside deal, that is good for the corrupt official personally, usually leads to a bad economic decision for the public because the extra cost of corruption must be passed on to the taxpayer; a bought politician tends to make distorted choices. This “mismanagement effect” is costly to the public trust. One dollar of corruption is estimated to impose a burden of $1.67 on the taxpayers. …

Efforts to make government transactions transparent are met with disdain and with incredulous personalized claims that people who don’t trust their public officials are just paranoid, and should not be allowed to interrupt the people’s business by prying into the inner workings of government procurements. Fear of being targeted for ridicule or worse by society’s powerful elite makes it easy to look the other way, live in denial, or just accept government corruption as the way of the world. This is the most dangerous attitude of all; the perception that our government system is just unethical and corrupt and that there is nothing anyone can do about it. By this attitude, the perception of pervasive corruption at all levels of government, citizens lose hope and lose faith in their governing institutions. When this fundamental disconnect occurs people disengage from government, and self-governance is at risk.

Lavonta Williams: ‘You don’t have to go there’

Do not enter sign

At a Wichita City Council meeting last August, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

Downtown Wichita issues not appreciated

Once again, the Wichita Eagle editorial board misses the point regarding downtown Wichita development.

There may be some that are opposed to downtown simply because it’s downtown, or for other silly reasons. That seems to be the focus of Rhonda Holman’s editorial today.

But speaking from a perspective of economic freedom and individual liberty, it’s government interventionism in downtown that I object to. This is what harms Wichita, not the fact that people are living and working downtown or anywhere else, for that matter.

The political cronyism involved in many projects in downtown Wichita is what harms our city. When government takes from one and gives to another, everyone is worse off — other than the recipients. I understand that it’s easy to look at a subsidized project — be it downtown or elsewhere — and see people working at jobs. It’s much more difficult, however, to see the harm that the government intervention causes: Prosperity and jobs are lost due to inefficient government allocation of capital through political, not market, mechanisms. In the whole, we are worse off, not better.

If you don’t believe this — if you insist that the city government can create jobs and prosperity through its interventions, and that these have no net cost — then you have to ask why the city is not involved in more development.

It is the principled objection to government involvement that many do not understand, including, I think, the Wichita Eagle editorial board. An example: In September 2011, after I and others started a campaign to overturn a city council decision to award a tax subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel, the hotel’s lead developer asked to meet with me. In the meeting I explained that I would oppose the city’s action if applied to any hotel, located anywhere in Wichita, owned by anyone. He said that he sensed my opposition was based on principle, and I agreed.

The curious thing is that this seemed to puzzle him — that people would actually apply principles to politics.

The political allocation of investment capital in Wichita leads to problems of the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety. There is a small group of people that repeatedly receive large amounts of taxpayer subsidy. These people and others associated with their companies regularly contribute to the campaign funds of city council members and candidates. These council members then vote to grant these people taxpayer-funded subsidy, year after year.

City council members also vote to award them with no-bid contracts. That’s terrible government policy. Especially when one recent contract was later put to competitive bid, and turned out to cost much less than the no-bid price. City council members, all except one, were willing to award their significant campaign contributors with an overpriced no-bid contract at taxpayer expense.

The company that won the no-bid contract was Key Construction. Its owners and executives were the sole contributors to the campaign fund of Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), also running for reelection this spring, and also having voted for the no-bid contract for Key, also received many contributions from Key and its executives in 2012. That company, along with person associated with one other company, were the sole source of Clendenin’s campaign funding that year.

Doesn’t the Wichita Eagle editorial board see a problem here? Doesn’t the newsroom?

There was a time when newspaper opinion editors crusaded against this type of behavior.

Newspaper editorial writers ought also to be concerned about how taxpayer funds are spent. The City of Wichita, however, has established non-profit organizations to spend taxpayer funds. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, for example, is funded almost exclusively through taxes. Yet, it claims that it is not a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act, and therefore need not fulfill records requests seeking to bring transparency as to how the agency spends its taxpayer funds. The city, inexplicably, backs WDDC in this interpretation of law that is contrary to the interests of citizens.

Secrecy of this type regarding taxpayer funds is not good public policy. There was a time when newspaper editors railed against government secrecy like this.

We need a newspaper editorial board that understands principle vs. political expediency. As a first step, let’s ask for an editorial board that recognizes these abuses of citizens and is willing to talk about them.

Carl Brewer: The state of Wichita, 2013

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, State of the City Address, January 29, 2013

Much like President Barack Obama in his recent inaugural address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer displayed his collectivist instincts in his “State of the City” address for 2013. His speech, as prepared, may be read here.

Opening, the mayor said “Wichita has overcome great challenges in the past and will overcome these as well, but we’ll need to work together.”

Near the close, the mayor said “THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW! We have reached a point where we MUST come together as a community, and create a plan that defines our priorities and the City we are to become.” And then: “For all of our differences, I have never doubted this community’s ability to come together and protect what matters most.” (The capitalization is in the mayor’s prepared text.)

But what’s really important to Wichita is economic development. Regarding that, Brewer said this:

As we struggle to compete for new businesses and new jobs, especially in light of job losses in aviation, we must face the reality that we are competing with other cities that offer economic incentives for business development and expansion. If we want to be IN the game, we need to PLAY the game, but we have no dedicated funding source for economic development. If we’re serious about finding new jobs for our people — and I am — we must change this scenario as soon as possible. Where will those incentive dollars come from? (Capitalization, again, is from the original.)

The idea of a dedicated funding source for economic development is something that many in Wichita would support. Many would oppose it, too. But instead of just lobbing rhetorical questions (Where will those incentive dollars come from?), the mayor should give us some answers. Or, at least make a specific proposal. Does the mayor recommend a sales tax increase? Or allocating specific levels of property tax to economic development? (The city is doing this on a temporary basis.) Or asking the state legislature to fund Wichita’s economic development, as we insist the legislature fund our airline subsidy program?

Whatever it is, Mayor Brewer, give us some specific ideas as to how you want to raise this money, and how you would spend it.

It’s that spending, I think, that people in Wichita have concern over. The cumulative record of Brewer, the city council, and city bureaucratic staff hasn’t inspired trust and confidence. Giving the city additional dollars to spend on economic development is not a wise investment.

For example, the mayor says that subsidizing downtown development is good economic development strategy. But we see the mayor and nearly all council members voting to give an overpriced no-bid contract to their significant campaign contributors. This happened despite the company’s large cost overruns on previous no-bid contracts awarded by the city. Is that good economic development practice?

We see the city council sitting in a quasi-judicial role, adjudicating the award of an airport construction contract when one of the parties is a significant campaign contributor. In fact, Key Construction — the company that prevailed in that decision — through its principals and executives, was the sole source of campaign funds raised by Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

Key’s executives also contributed heavily to James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) last year. He’s running this spring, too.

At the time this airport contract was being handled, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission. Campaign finance reports revealed contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new airport terminal, and that Longwell would be voting on that contract, provide a clue?

Or: A movie theater owner and business partners contribute to the mayor’s (and other) campaigns. Mayor and council vote to give a no-interest and low-interest loan and tax breaks to theater owner and his partners. Mayor goes into barbeque sauce business. Mayor’s barbeque sauce is now sold at movie theater.

Doesn’t Carl Brewer see anything wrong with this? Don’t his advisors tell him that this creates the appearance of impropriety? Does the mayor consider whether these actions make a positive impression on those who might want to invest in Wichita?

We see the city awarding economic development incentives that were not necessary for the project to proceed. It took a special election to teach the mayor and council that lesson. By the way, that unneeded and rejected incentive was awarded to the significant campaign contributors of Mayor Brewer and most council members.

We see the city taking credit for building up the tax base, yet giving away tax revenue in the form of property tax abatements, IRBs, tax increment financing, and STAR bonds.

The bureaucratic missteps: The Southfork TIF district is just the latest example.

The lack of respect for citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent is another troubling aspect of Brewer’s tenure as mayor. None of the words “accountability,” “transparency,” or “open government” were mentioned in the mayor’s address this year, as they have been in the past. No sense in calling attention to an area where the city has failed, I suppose.

All this is done in the name of economic development and jobs. But Wichita is underperforming Kansas and the nation in these areas. Under Brewer’s leadership, however, we are overachieving in the advancement of cronyism and its ills.

The record indicates that our officeholders, and those who advise them, are not worthy of our trust, and certainly not more taxes for economic development.

After last year’s State of the City speech, I noted “Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles of freedom and liberty ‘simplistic.’ Instead, his government prefers crony capitalism and corporate welfare.”

I also wrote: “Relying on economic freedom, free markets, and limited government for jobs and prosperity means trusting in free people, the energy of decentralized innovation, and spontaneous order. A government plan for economic development is the opposite of these principles.”

This year, the outlook for economic freedom and limited government in Wichita is gloomier than ever before. The door for those who wish to profit through cronyism is wide open. We’ll have to hope that, somehow, Wichita can learn to thrive under this regime.

Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita

Candidates for Wichita City Council have filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who have indicated their intent to run in the spring elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

So do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract and the airport contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few others are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

Warren and his business partners have received largess from the council, too. In 2008 (before Clendenin joined the council) the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Wichita’s need for campaign finance reform

The campaign finance reports of Williams and Clendenin reinforce and spotlight the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why not? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

The common thread running through these incidents? Council members voting to enrich their campaign contributors. Each of these — and there are others — are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful and abusive of taxpayers and erodes their trust in government.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (under the current restrictions) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process, which was used by community water fluoridation advocates in Wichita this year. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it must collect about 6,200 valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election. For the fluoridation initiative the council voted to call an election, which was held as part of the November general election. (The initiative failed to obtain a majority of votes, so the proposed ordinance did not take effect.)

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Incidents

In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Finally: This summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

Surveillance state arrives in Wichita

In an effort to control crime in Old Town, Wichita is importing the police surveillance state. Right now the targeted area is a small part of the city during certain periods of time. But once camera use has started, it is likely to spread across town, especially given the enthusiasm of police and elected officials like Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), according to Wichita Eagle reporting.

Many people may not be aware of the gross invasion of privacy that government cameras represent. Have you used the facial recognition technology in Google’s Picasa software? It’s uncanny how accurate it is. In the hands of government, it’s a concern.

Some surveillance cameras can read car license plates two blocks away. With facial recognition technology and optical character recognition, police don’t have to actually watch the live or recorded video to learn who has been in a location. Computers can create databases, updated in real time with who is where at what time. Alerts can be programmed, so that if a person or car is seen, police can be notified.

Then, we have to wonder whether the cameras work as advertised. The website You Are Being Watched, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union, comes to this conclusion: “An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject — studies carried out over many years — and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. Several studies on video surveillance have been conducted in the UK, where surveillance cameras are pervasive. The two main meta-analyses conducted for the British Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) show that video surveillance has no impact on crime whatsoever. If it did, then there would be little crime in London, a city estimated to have about 500,000 cameras.”

An irony is that law enforcement likes recording citizens, but not the other way around. As John Stossel has noted, police don’t like to be recorded. In some states its a crime to tape a police officer making an arrest. A video excerpt from Stossel’s television shows the attitudes of police towards being recorded. At Reason Radley Balko details the problem, writing “As citizens increase their scrutiny of law enforcement officials through technologies such as cell phones, miniature cameras, and devices that wirelessly connect to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak, the cops are increasingly fighting back with force and even jail time—and not just in Illinois. Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.”

Further irony is found in the parties promoting the cameras. Council member Williams was instrumental in crafting Wichita’s smoking ban. So too was Charlie Claycomb, president of the Old Town Association. One of their arguments was that everyone should have the right to enter any business and not be subjected to secondhand smoke. It was an argument based on civil liberties.

I’d like to be able to enjoy a cocktail in Old Town without my presence monitored and noted by the police. Is that a civil liberty worth preserving?

Wichita should reconsider this decision. It seems like an easy solution to a problem. But it’s another journey down the road of the ever-growing regulatory regime in Wichita.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.’”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita fluoridation debate reveals attitudes of government

Is community water fluoridation like iodized salt? According to Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), we didn’t vote on whether to put iodine in table salt, so Wichitans don’t need to vote on whether to add fluoride to drinking water.

There’s a distinguishing factor, however, that somehow Miller didn’t realize: Consumption of iodized salt is a voluntary act. Not so with fluoridated water.

At the August 21, 2012 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Miller went on to name other substances added to our food supply that she said are beneficial to health. We didn’t vote on these either, but again, consumption of these foods and the added substances is voluntary.

In her discussion, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) said “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

This confusion of government and voluntary action is troubling for the future of Wichita, and more broadly, our country.

Wichita voters reject cronyism — again

Tuesday’s primary election in Kansas was notable for the large number of victories by conservative challengers over Republican senate incumbents. Also important is that voters in Wichita and the surrounding area rejected, for the second time this year, the culture of political cronyism that passes for economic development in Wichita.

On Tuesday incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn defeated a challenge by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell. The contrast was clear: Peterjohn with his long-time, outspoken advocacy for limited government and free market principles, although perhaps tempered a bit based on some votes he’s made. Longwell, however, advocates for “more tools in the toolbox.” In other words, a larger role for government in economic development and centralized planning.

The result: Peterjohn won, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Longwell had the endorsements of many Wichita-area politicians, including Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and all other Wichita City Council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and council members Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita).

Sedgwick County Commission members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton, and Dave Unruh also endorsed Longwell.

In addition to these endorsements, Longwell had a large money advantage over Peterjohn. According to campaign finance reports filed July 30, Longwell had raised nearly $62,000.

Peterjohn’s July 30 report showed about $20,000 raised, so as of that date Longwell had over three times as much campaign money at his disposal than Peterjohn.

The money advantage and the endorsements are linked. On Longwell’s July 30 campaign finance report we learned that executives of a Michigan construction company made campaign contributions immediately before and after Longwell participated in a city council voted that benefited them. Key Construction, a heavy contributor to Longwell’s campaign, also benefited from Longwell’s vote that day. This was just another episode in Longwell’s history of voting for overpriced no-bid contracts and no-interest city loans for his large campaign contributors.

The day after Peterjohn held a news conference questioning Longwell’s Michigan contributions, Longwell held the news conference that announced the above-mentioned endorsements. Many of those endorsers also receive campaign money from those they award with no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largesse.

Despite the advantage in campaign funds and the endorsements, voters in west Wichita and west Sedgwick County rejected the political cronyism that is Jeff Longwell’s legacy in government service.

It’s the second time this year voters have rejected cronyism. In February Wichita voters voted down a tax giveaway to the Ambassador Hotel by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Longwell played a role in that election, too. When citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge the taxpayer-funded giveaway to the hotel, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.”

When it came time for the council to set the date for the special election on the hotel tax, Longwell attempted to have the election commissioner set the date as early as possible, obviously thinking that a short campaign would benefit the hotel developers.

Those hotel developers, by the way, included many of Longwell’s long-time campaign contributors.

After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.

In Wichita, a problem with government ethics

Wichita and Kansas lag behind states like Illinois and New Jersey in laws regarding ethical behavior by elected officials. Last week Wichita saw a lesson in how Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test in government ethics. Besides Brewer, long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), as well as Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) have also displayed a callous disregard for ethical behavior by government officials.

Today I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas and explained the recent incidents that ought to cause Wichitans and Kansans to insist on reform regarding government ethics. Pay-to-play laws would be a good start. See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

For earlier reporting on this matter, see Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract, For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point, and Wichita fails ethics test.

Wichita fails ethics test

Yesterday Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test, showing that Wichita elected officials, except for one, aren’t interested in ethical behavior.

The problem is worse than portrayed in a Wichita Eagle editorial, which commented on the appearance of the mayor’s and council’s action. In Wichita, we don’t have the mere appearance of a problem, we have an actual and real problem.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the mayor and all members of the city council except for Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) don’t see that’s a problem for them to award no-bid contracts to campaign contributors. They also don’t see that it’s wrong to preside over a hearing in a quasi-judicial manner and award contracts to a campaign contributor. See For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point and Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract.

In some states and cities, the routine action of the mayor and council members would be illegal. It ought to be illegal in Kansas. There was no discussion from the council bench about this, and none in the executive session council members took.

Coincidentally, a group spoke during the public agenda portion of Tuesday’s council meeting about their concern for what they say is the corrupting influence of campaign money in politics.

None of the group stayed to observe the city council provide a lesson in how most of Wichita’s elected officials willfully ignore the issues the group is concerned with. From the bench Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke approvingly of the group’s cause. But last year Miller voted for a no-bid contract to be awarded to her campaign contributors, and she voted in Tuesday’s airport contract hearing.

The behavior of Mayor Brewer and most members of the council gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

An example of a pay-to-play law is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life — the Wichita way.

For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point

Tomorrow Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the Wichita City Council will make a decision that will let the city learn the ethics and character of its elected officials.

The issue is whether the mayor and five of six council members will decide to preside in a quasi-judicial matter over a case involving a major campaign contributor and personal friend. Now we know that the mayor has also intervened on behalf of Key Construction, recommending exclusively that the firm be hired for a construction project.

My reporting in Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract details the campaign contributions made by executives of Key Construction and their spouses.

On Sunday Bill Wilson of the Wichita Eagle reported on the letter Brewer sent to a retail store planning to build in Wichita. Key was the only construction company the mayor recommended. (Letter from mayor at center of construction bid controversy.)

Wichita has shown it is willing to disregard the taxpayer in order to award out-sized profits to Key Construction. The most recent scheme — which didn’t pan out for Key — had the council willing to overspend by $1.3 million through a no-bid contract planned for Key. Only the action of council members Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) prevented the award of the no-bid contract and saved Wichita taxpayers $1.3 million.

Despite this, Mayor Brewer wrote in his Key Construction recommendation letter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

But in February, Wilson of the Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Continuing, Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

With a record like this, we have to wonder why Mayor Brewer would recommend Key Construction. Besides the campaign contributions and fishing trips, that is.

The Wichita mayor’s behavior gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Until such laws are in place, it is up to the personal judgment and character of the mayor and each city council member who has accepted campaign funds from Key Construction to decide whether they should act as judge in a case where Key is a party and stands to benefit financially. The decisions they make will let us know the future course for government ethics in Wichita. They either take a stand for good government, or fall farther into the morass of political cronyism.

Wichita increases its debt

Wichita has increased its long-term debt load and shifted tax money from debt repayment to current consumption.

Starting with a debt load of $813,493,172 in 2007, decisions made by the mayor and city council have increased that figure by $381,146,955 in 2011. That’s an increase of nearly 47 percent in four years. The debt level now stands at $1,194,640,127 as of December 31, 2011.

Mayor Carl Brewer and long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) have presided over this increase of long-term debt that city taxpayers will be paying for a long time.

Instead of seeking to retire this debt, the council has taken action that delays paying off the debt. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

In other words, the city has shifted tax money from debt repayment to current spending needs. While economic development seems like a worthy cause, it hasn’t worked very well for the city. In his most recent State of the City address, Mayor Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs” in 2011, one of the years in which debt service taxes were redirected to spending on economic development.

While “almost 1000″ sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This miniscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.

It is unknown how many of these jobs would have been created without the city’s economic development assistance, but the number must be substantial. Also, the mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay these costs. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Wichita debt.

Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will conduct a hearing for review of the award of a contract for the construction of the new Wichita Airport terminal. But because of relationships between nearly all council members — especially Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — and one of the parties to the dispute, the city council should not participate in this decision.

The contract, worth about $100 million, was awarded to Dondlinger and Sons and its partner. Dondlinger has built many large projects, including INTRUST Bank Arena. But the city then ruled that Dondliger’s bid is “unresponsive.” The reason is that Dondlinger may not have met bid requirements regarding disadvantaged and minority business enterprises.

The firm next in line to receive the contract is Key Construction of Wichita. If the city council finds against Dondllinger, Key gets the contract, presumably. That’s the source of the problem the city council faces, as Key is heavily involved in politics, with its executives and their spouses often making the maximum allowed campaign contributions to nearly all members of the council. Personal relationships may play a role, too.

For the mayor and current council members, here is my tabulation of how much Key-associated persons made to each member’s most recent campaign:

Carl Brewer: $4,500
Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita): $4,000
Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita): $3,000
Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita): $2,500
Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita): $1,500
James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita): $1,000
Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): $0

Is there a pattern to these contributions? That is, does Key make contributions to candidates with a specific political philosophy, such as conservatism or liberalism? Of the top three contributors, two have distinctly liberal ideas about taxation and spending, while the other is touting conservative credentials as he campaigns for another office. Patterns like this suggest that the contributions are made to gain access to officeholders, or for favorable consideration when the donor asks the council to vote to give it money or contracts. Key Construction does that a lot.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The political influence of Key Construction extends beyond campaign contributions, too. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

These political investments have paid off for Key Construction, as it has received a number of no-bid contracts over the years. Last August the council decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted for the no-bid contract to Key Construction, although Mayor Carl Brewer was absent. It is likely that he would have voted with the majority, however.

Later the city decided to place the contract for bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price some $1.3 million less.

What citizens need to know is that the city council, except O’Donnell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million on a project awarded to a politically-connected construction firm.

So should the Wichita City Council make the decision on the airport contract? City documents don’t indicate whether Tuesday’s hearing is of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council is being asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.’”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they’re being asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction need to recuse themselves from Tuesday’s decision on the Wichita Airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Finally, this episode is another example of why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Wichita City Council sets hotel tax election date

In response to a successful petition effort aimed at overturning a Wichita charter ordinance, the Wichita City Council last week considered an agenda item that gave the council two choices: Rescind the ordinance, or set a date for an election. The charter ordinance concerns rebating a portion of the Ambassador Hotel’s guest tax collections back to the hotel for its own use.

The most important issue to the council seemed to be holding the election on a date convenient to the hotel developers. The recommendation from Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman was that the election, if the council decides to hold it, should be on February 28, 2012.

During discussion, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) asked a series of questions designed to produced a response that if the election were held earlier, and if that would make it more expensive, would the developer have to pay these extra costs? (The agreement with the city states hotel developers are responsible for the cost of the election, which has been estimated at $50,000.)

She also expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.” She assumed that the developer would like to have the issue resolved as soon as possible.

Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) asked the hotel developers if they would agree to pay extra to hold the election sooner. David Burk appeared on behalf of the hotel development team, and said he would like to see the election held as soon as possible, and would pay additional for that. He said it is “hard on our community,” and that “each day that goes by we’re casting a bad sign on future development in downtown, and in Wichita in general.”

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) framed the issue as the election commissioner needing more time “beyond what is required by law.” He suggested that the item be delayed until later in the meeting and that the election commissioner be summoned to appear before the council. A motion was made to that effect, and it passed.

When the election item was continued later in the meeting, Longwell engaged Commissioner Lehman in a series of questions attempting to manage the election calender for her. Lehman explained the various reasons as to why February 28 is a reasonable date for the election. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office has agreed with this assessment, she added.

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer said: “This is an issue that really — there’s a lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing. And when we have a special election, I believe that this council and the community deserve the right to be able to have it — have an election as quickly as possible. By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest. But trying to be fair and giving individuals a fair — coming and going — with a fair process, so that every citizen can be heard. And so the sooner you can actually do it, the better off that we are.”

The mayor made a motion to set the election date as February 28, and it passed with all members except Williams voting in favor.

Discussion

This episode provided another example reinforcing the realization that Wichita has a city council — with the exception of one member, Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) — that is entirely captured by special interests. In this case the special interests are a hotel development team consisting of partners who have made significant campaign contributions to many members of the Wichita city council.

An example: While city attorney Gary Rebenstorf explained to the council that one option was to rescind the ordinance, there was no discussion of that among council members.

Another example was the measures the council went through to try and get an early election date, something that many observers feel favors the hotel developers. In particular, it was disconcerting to see Longwell attempt to micromanage the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner. He has no business doing that, especially when his motive is so transparent.

And why would the council be so eager to please the hotel developers and their desired election date? Don’t the desires and concerns of the other side have any relevance? To this council, the answer is no.

Perhaps the worst impression to come out of this meeting is that many Wichita city council members simply don’t care much for what citizens think. It’s hard to pick the most telling example, but Meitzner’s concern that we need to “avoid community discourse and debate” ranks right at the top. To Meitzner, it seems that things like discussing and debating issues are harmful, if they would get in the way of satisfying his campaign contributors, or his vision for molding the future of Wichita from the top down.

The rest of the council members, with the exception of O’Donnell, deserve scorn as well.

Then there are the mayor’s remarks. He spoke of giving individuals a “fair process” so that they may be heard, but also that the election needs to be held quickly. These two goals contradict each other.

Mayor Brewer also repeated his practice of making vague criticisms of his opponents without being specific, this time referring to “lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing.” Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — usually does not mention the names of those he criticizes or specifics of the issues involved. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people — and on the specifics of actual issues — for the things he says.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday November 22, 2011

Ghana junket. A reader writes with information and opinion about the trip by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast and east Wichita) to Ghana, Africa: “I found it interesting that the City Council $15,000 plus junket to Ghana was first advertised as a Sister City recruitment trip (And after the Police Chief and others were identified) the trip mission changed to Economic Development. I have no idea how Ghana can help us when 56% of their economy is agricultural and in 2002 the government opted for debt relief under the “Heavily Indebted Poor Country Program.”Tomorrow night the Ambassador of South Africa is visiting Wichita and making a presentation on Economic Development to the World Trade Council at the Marriott East in order to hopefully partner with Wichita in future economic development projects. So the point is this: South Africa has a GDP of $527.5 billion and is coming to us for economic development (they import machine and equipment), and the mayor is spending thousands of dollars to visit Ghana, a country with a $38.24 billion GDP and mostly agricultural. Finally, foreign governments that invited American delegations always provide security if there is a need for it.”

Kansas job recovery seen as slow. From Kansas Reporter: “IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., business information and forecasting firm, calculated that at the pace jobs are being created or recovered now, Kansas workers will not regain the more than 90,000 lost since April 2008 until the end of 2014.” More at Full Kansas jobs recovery remains three years away, forecasters say.

Village West defaults. The Legends at Village West, a huge shopping development in Kansas City near the Kansas Speedway, has defaulted on its loan. According to reporting in Commercial Real Estate Direct, the property never met its cash flow projections, topping out at $10.3 million per year in 2008. The loan assumed it would generate $11.1 million. Since 2008 cash flow has fallen. The public policy interest is that this facility, along with the nearby racetrack, received millions in sales tax (STAR) bond financing, to be repaid by taxpayers through sales tax collections.

No Pachyderm this week. Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the Wichita Pachyderm Club will not meet on Friday. Upcoming speakers: On December 2: Kansas Representative Dennis Hedke speaking on “Energy and environmental policy.” … On December 9: Beccy Tanner, Kansas history writer and reporter for The Wichita Eagle, speaking on “The Kansas Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary.” … On December 16: David Kensinger, Chief of Staff to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. … On December 23 there will be no meeting. The status of the December 30th meeting is undetermined at this time. … On January 6: Kansas Senator Garrett Love. … On January 13: Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal, speaking on “The untold school finance story.” … on January 20: Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

Wichita city council: substance and process

Today the Wichita City Council will conduct a public hearing for the second time. The reason the council must hold the hearing again is that a mistake was made in the official notice of the hearing.

While I commend the city for realizing the mistake and following the letter of the law in conducting the hearing again, we must contrast this behavior, which is following the process according to the law, with the council’s past behavior, which has shown no regard for the spirit and substance of the law regarding public hearings.

The most recent example is when the city council approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing. That act made the public hearing a meaningless exercise. The council approved everything that was contained in the letter of intent, except that one item was modified, and that was not a result of the public hearing.

Another example is from 2008, when the council conducted a public hearing essentially in secret, making last-minute changes to the substance to be heard. At the time, Randy Brown, former editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle and Executive Director of Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, agreed with my contention that the hearing was a “bait and switch” operation. Writing in a letter to the Eagle, Brown said:

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public ‘s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

It turns out that the council’s actions regarding this hearing were permissible under the letter of the law, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

We are left with the realization, however, that we have a city with elected officials and bureaucratic leaders that are careful to follow the letter of the law, but are unable — or unwilling — to see the larger picture regarding public policy. Substance is of little concern.

Following is my op-ed from the December 5, 2008 Wichita Eagle:

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.

Ken-Mar TIF district, the bailouts

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council handles two items regarding the Ken-Mar shopping center being redeveloped in northeast Wichita. These items illustrate how inappropriate it is for the city to serve as either entrepreneur or partner with entrepreneurs, and is another lesson in how Wichita needs pay-to-play laws.

In August 2008 the city formed a tax increment financing (TIF) district to benefit the center. This allows $2.5 million of the center’s future property taxes to be earmarked for the district’s exclusive benefit. In January 2009 the city approved a development plan that specified how the public money would be spent, and how the development would proceed.

The developer of the project is Reverend Kevass Harding, a former Wichita school board member who has announced future political ambitions.

The first and most serious issue regarding this TIF district is that changes to the development plan mean that the district will not be able to meet its debt obligations. In the sobering words of the agenda report: “The TIF financial analysis indicates that the incremental tax revenue will not cover the debt service on City TIF bonds.”

City staff is proposing to shift the debt to the city’s debt service fund, using money there to pay off the $2.5 million in temporary TIF financing bonds. Then, Ken-Mar will repay the debt service fund through the district’s incremental tax revenue over a period of 17 years, along with three percent interest.

The original development plan from 2009 includes a table that specifies an interest rate of 4.91 percent for the TIF bonds. Now the city is replacing that with its own debt, and charging Harding and Ken-Mar just three percent interest. My calculations indicate this reduced interest rate will save Harding about $30,000 per year, or about $516,000 over the course of the loan.

This action can only be characterized as a bailout, with all the negative connotations that accompany that word. It’s not the first time Wichita has had to create a bailout for a failing TIF district.

The second item the council will deal with is a change to the development plan. The development agreement from 2009 contemplates that changes will need to be made, “with the approval of City Representative from time to time.”

While the agreement doesn’t explicitly state that changes to the plan must be approved before proceeding, this is the only reasonable way to interpret the agreement.

But in this case, Harding made changes before getting approval from the city. And he didn’t just use a different paint color or different flowers in the landscaping. Instead, he made a big change. He demolished a large portion of the structure that was to be renovated, according to the plan he agreed to.

The world changes. No doubt about that. Changes to plans are necessary to accommodate changes in the world. But this is more evidence of how government is not prepared to serve as entrepreneur, or as partner with entrepreneurs.

There was an agreement in place. Harding changed it, and only several months later is the city going to grant its approval. This places the city in the position of appearing not to care whether its agreements are followed. The council finds itself in the awkward position of approving an agreement to do something that’s already been done.

(This is not an unusual position for the city, as recently it approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing.)

Pay-to-play lesson

Underlying the story of Ken-Mar and Reverend Harding is a lesson on the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. As reported in 2009, Harding and his wife made campaign contributions to Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is presently serving as vice-mayor. These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But in June 2008, just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

The close linkage between the contributions and Harding asking the city council to grant him money illustrates the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. These laws impose various restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts or other largesse to those who have made political contributions.

An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

In the absence of such laws, and with Harding and Williams unwilling to explain, we’re left with questions like these:

If the Ken-Mar TIF district served a genuine public purpose, why did the Hardings make the campaign contributions to Williams?

Must those who want to form a TIF district make contributions to the council member representing the district?

If council member Williams is accessible to her constituents, why the contributions?

Must those who receive money from the city offer a thank-you contribution?

None of these reflect well on the reputation of Wichita.

Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.

Looking at the candidates these people contribute to, we find that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. At first glance, it’s puzzling.

But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

All told, parties associated with the proposed Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project contributed at least $24,500 to current city council members during their most recent campaigns. This is split between two groups of people: executives associated with Key Construction and their spouses, and David Burk and his wife.

Those associated with Key Construction contributed $16,500, and the Burks contributed $8,000.

At a recent city council meeting, Mayor Brewer, along with council members Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams expressed varying degrees of outrage that people would link their acceptance of campaign contributions with their votes and conduct as officeholders.

But Burk and some others often make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How else can we explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to big-government liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Jeff Longwell, Pete Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

Burk and the others must be expecting something from these campaign contributions. There’s no other reasonable explanation. Candidates and officeholders who accept these contributions know that Burk and his business partners are likely to appear before the council asking for money. If they find this distasteful or repugnant, they could simply refuse to accept Burk’s contributions, as well as those from people associated with Key Construction. But they don’t.

This is what writers like Randal O’Toole mean when he wrote “TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others.”

Some states and cities have “pay-to-play” laws which govern conduct of officeholders who have accepted campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts. An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

If Wichita had such a law, the city council couldn’t muster a quorum of its members to vote on the Douglas Place project, so pervasive are the campaign contributions.

Contributions by Douglas Place participants

In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member and with his heart set on becoming the next mayor, leads the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Douglas Place project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Douglas Place project: $6,000.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is also vice mayor, received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

This article has been updated to include information from campaign finance reports filed in January 2012.

In Wichita, private tax policy on the rise

In a free society with a limited government, taxation should be restricted to being a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way. But in the city of Wichita, private tax policy is overtaking our city.

The Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel to be considered tomorrow by the Wichita City Council, makes use of several of these private tax policy strategies.

By private tax policy, I mean that the proceeds of a tax are used for the exclusive benefit of one person (or business firm), instead of used for the benefit of all. And in at least one case, private parties are being allowed to determine the city’s tax policy at their discretion.

The taxes collected by this private tax policy is still collected under the pretense of government authority. But instead of going to pay for government — things like police, fire, and schools — the tax is collected for the exclusive benefit of one party, not the public.

In Wichita and across Kansas, one example of taxation being used for the benefit of one person or business is the Community Improvement District (CID). Under this program, the business collects an extra tax that looks just like sales tax. Except — the proceeds of the extra CID tax are funneled back for the exclusive benefit of the people who own property in the district. The Douglas Place project is asking to collect an extra tax of two cents per dollar for its own benefit.

CIDs are a threat to unsuspecting customers who likely won’t be aware of the extra tax they’ll be paying until after they complete their purchases, if at all. Wichita decided against disclosing to citizens the amount of tax they’ll be paying with signage on stores. Instead, the city settled for a sign that says nothing except to check a city website for information about CIDs.

CIDs also present the City of Wichita as a high-tax place to live and do business. It’s a risk to our city’s reputation. Especially when you consider the Jeff Longwell strategy, which is that since these taxes are often used by hotels and other businesses that cater to visitors, Wichitans don’t pay them as much as do visitors.

Another example of private tax policy is when a tax such as Wichita’s hotel guest tax is redirected from its original goal. According to a description of the Tourism and Convention Fund in the city’s budget, the goal of the guest tax is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its priorities are to be “Fund priorities are: 1) debt service for tourism and convention facilities, 2) operational deficit subsidies and 3) care and maintenance of Century II.”

But in the case of the Douglas Place project, the city is asking for a charter ordinance to be passed that would route 75 percent of this tax directly back to the Douglas Place owners. That’s not the proclaimed purpose of the guest tax, unless we consider private hotels to be part of the city’s tourism infrastructure. (I think some people think that way.)

At least in the case of Douglas Place the city is being more upfront with its citizens. The charter ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the city council for passage, a higher bar than in the past. And, the city isn’t borrowing money to give to the hotel. That’s what the city has done in the past, as in the case of the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown that is part of the WaterWalk project. One of the many layers of subsidy going in to that hotel was that the city simply gifted the hotel $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.

Some will say that’s not really a gift, as the hotel will pay back the loan. But the loan is being repaid with taxes the hotel — more properly, its guests — must pay anyway. This is public taxation for private enrichment.

If you need further evidence that the city is turning over taxation to private hands, consider this: The charter ordinance is subject to a protest petition, and if sufficient signatures are gathered, the city council would have to either overturn the ordinance or hold an election to let the people decide.

Now, if such a tax is truly in the public interest, the city would hold such an election and bear its costs itself. But that’s not the case. In the agreement between the city and the Douglas Place developers, we see this: “If Developer requests a special election solely for the purpose of passing the charter ordinance in the event a sufficient protest petition is submitted, Developer shall reimburse the City for the actual out of pocket costs and expenses of conducting such election.”

In other words, the city is turning over to private interests the decision as to whether to have such an election. At least the citizens of Wichita won’t have to pay for it, if such an election happens.

Another example of private tax policy that the Douglas Place project is using is Tax increment financing, or a TIF district. This mechanism routes property taxes back to the development. In the case of Douglas Place, $3,325,000 of its own property taxes are being used to pay for its parking garage. That’s a deal most citizens can’t get.

Normally property taxes are used for the general operation of government. Not so in TIF districts, another example of public taxation for private enrichment. Again, these are taxes that the property must pay anyway.

Private taxation funds political entrepreneurship

In Wichita, especially in downtown, we see the rise of private tax policy, that is, the taxation power of government being used for private purposes. This private tax policy is pushed by Wichita’s political entrepreneurs. These are the people who would rather compete in the realm of politics rather than in the market.

Examples of Wichita’s political entrepreneurs include the developers of Douglas Place: David Burk of Marketplace Properties, and the principals of Key Construction.

Competing in the political arena is easier than competing in the market. To win in the political arena, you only have to convince a majority of the legislative body that controls your situation. Once you’ve convinced them the power of government takes over, and the people at large are forced to transfer money to the political entrepreneurs. In other words, they must engage in transactions they would not elect to perform, if left to their own free will.

In the free marketplace, however, entrepreneurs have to compete by offering products or services that people are willing to buy, free of coercion. That’s hard to do. But it’s the only way to gauge whether people really want what the entrepreneurs are selling.

One of the ways that political entrepreneurs compete is by making campaign contributions, and the developers of Douglas Place have mastered this technique. Key Construction principles contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

All told, Burk and his wife contributed at least $7,500 to city council candidates who will be voting whether to give Burk money. Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is: Burk will be asking these people for money.

Wichitans need to rise against these political entrepreneurs and their usurpation of a public function — taxation — for their own benefit. The politicians and bureaucrats who enable this should realize they should be serving the public interest, not the narrow and private enrichment of the few at the cost of many.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday August 16, 2011

Future of Kansas insurance exchange. “TOPEKA — A federal appeals court ruling in Georgia that overturned a portion of the nation’s latest health insurance law Friday did little to end confusion over how to follow that law in Kansas. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires all Americans to carry health insurance or face penalties, is unconstitutional. The Court ruled that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers by requiring people to buy health insurance when they choose not to do so.” At issue is whether the state should continue to spend money and work on infrastructure to support Obamacare, when it appears increasingly likely that the law will be ruled unconstitutional. Gene Meyer reports in Kansas Reporter.

Concern over Wichita spending. At today’s city council meeting the council considered whether to pay travel expenses for Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to attend a sister cities exchange meeting in Mexico. The mayor announced that he would be paying his own airfare, that the hotel and meals would be paid for by the host city, so the only expense would be for his luggage and perhaps some incidental meals. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that if the city sends representatives on worthwhile missions, the city should pay all travel expenses. Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast and east Wichita) disagreed, noting that just last week she traveled to Texas on city business, and she paid for her own airfare. The mayor remarked that “primarily what we’re doing is we’re paying to perform the job we’re assigned to do,” and that previous commitments had been made that obligate the current council to follow through. … The next item was to pay for travel for other persons to attend the conference. The agenda packet for today’s meeting contained no information on these two items, certainly not the amounts of money involved or the persons to travel. … The council’s concern over spending on items like the mayor’s airfare is welcome, but this spending is small relative to the many areas in which the city could trim spending.

Kansas governor praises wind power. Today Kansas Governor Sam Brownback promoted investment in wind energy. In a press release he said “I want Kansas to be known as the ‘Renewable State.’ To get there, we have to balance the three E’s: Energy, Economy and the Environment. My first priority as Governor is to grow the Kansas economy, and getting wind power to market is a key component accomplishing that.” Contrary to the governor’s rosy picture, Lisa Linowes details the long string of failures of the wind power industry, including the fact that wind power is becoming more expensive, despite its massive federal subsidy. It is unknown why Brownback — who generally supports free markets — supports wind power and the government intervention necessary to prop up the industry. The same can be said for his support of ethanol, which is rapidly losing support for its three forms of government intervention that support it: a subsidy for its producers, a mandate to use it, and a tariff to protect domestic producers from foreign competition.

Corporate taxes. Mitt Romney made it an issue. David Henderson comments: “No, I’m making the simple point that a tax on corporations is a tax on people. I remember that in addressing the issue in the 1980s, the late Herb Stein said that it’s as if people think that if the government imposed a tax on cows, the tax would be paid by the cows.” In a video, Milton Friedman explained that “There’s no business to be taxed. There are people. Only people can pay taxes. … When you talk about a tax on business, it has to be paid by somebody. Either it’s paid by the stockholder, or it’s paid by the customer, or it’s paid by the worker. There’s no other way it can come from.” He also addressed the fiction that the Social Security tax is paid equally by employers and workers.

How the racism charge is used. The Capital Research Center has published a piece that illustrates how the political left tosses around a charge that no one wants to be accused of: racism. In an email the Center says: “Author Kevin Mooney examines a little-known group called Color of Change, which alleges that conservatives in the media are racists. Targeting figures like TV talk show host Glenn Beck and Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch, Color of Change enjoys the praise of prominent left-of-center groups like Media Matters and MoveOn.org. Mooney says the Left admires Color of Change because it has learned how to use the incendiary charge of racism to stifle conservatives’ free speech.” … The report itself says: “The intense anti-Fox animus is not new, but this time conservatives have good cause to be concerned about one aspect of the new campaign against Fox. That campaign aims to exploit the most incendiary of tactics — the issue of race — to dislodge conservatives from prominent media posts. … Despite much evidence that contemporary America has moved beyond the tragic legacy of slavery and segregation, the Left remains eager to accuse its opponents of racism.” … It will come as no surprise that George Soros is a financier of this organization. The compete report is The Left Wing Targets Conservative Media.

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council revealed a council — except for one member — totally captured by special interests, to the point where the council, aided by city staff, used a narrow legal interpretation in order to circumvent a statutorily required public hearing process.

The issue was a downtown hotel to be developed by a team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties. The subsidies Burk wants, specifically tax increment financing (TIF), require a public hearing to be held. The city scheduled the hearing for September 13th.

That schedule, however, didn’t suit Burk. In order to provide him a certain comfort level, the council agreed to issue a letter of intent stating that the council intends to do the things that the public hearing is supposed to provide an opportunity for deliberation.

I, along with others, contend that this action reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Carl Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, part of which holds that our laws are more important than any single person.

Several times council members — and once city attorney Gary Rebenstorf — explained that the letter of intent is non-binding on either party. But: No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against the incentives involved, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I think there is very little possibility of that.

Persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

During the discussion, no one was able to explain adequately why a letter of intent — if it is non-binding and therefore does not commit the city — was asked for by the developers. Despite the lawyerly explanation of Rebenstorf and council members — including the mayor — the letter does have meaning. Practically, it has such a powerful meaning that it makes the holding of the public hearing on September 13th a mere charade, a meaningless exercise in futility.

It’s not just me and a handful of others who contend this. The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, who is usually in favor of all forms of public spending on downtown, wrote: “Even though the letter of intent will be nonbinding, it risks making the Sept. 13 public hearing on tax-increment financing seem like a pointless afterthought.”

In his remarks, City Manager Bob Layton explained that the meeting was the first time for council members to “formally vet this project and all of the incentives.”

He added: “If the council were to say, for instance, there were two or three pieces of that that you had discomfort with, that would then put everyone on notice that the deal may not go forward.” He said this is the purpose of today’s action, and he added that the action is non-binding.

I would suggest that since the council, with the exception of Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), found no problems with issuing the letter of intent, it has no problems with the deal, and this is what makes the September public hearing, as Holman said, a “pointless afterthought.”

Astonishingly, the manger said while this is “not intended to be the normal process,” he said that he “kind of like it” as it gave an initial opportunity to gauge the sentiment of council members.

I’m glad the manager didn’t mention the sentiment of the public, as with little notice as to the content of the deal and its incentives, citizens had no meaningful opportunity to prepare.

An example of the contorted logic council members use to justify their action: Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) explained that issuing letters of intent is a common practice in real estate deals. He confused, however, agreements made between private parties and those where government is a party. Private parties can voluntarily enter into whatever agreements they want. But agreements with government are governed by laws. Yesterday, the city council announced its intent to do something for which it is required to hold a public hearing. That didn’t violate the letter of the law, but it certainly goes against its spirit and meaning. Longwell said he has no problem with that.

Their bureaucratic enablers helped out, too. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, in his testimony, said we are working towards becoming a “city of distinction.” That we are, indeed — a city distinguished by lack of respect for the rule of law and its disregard for citizens in favor of special interests.

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

In response to a question from the mayor, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private dollars to public dollars for this project is about 2.2 to 1. Whether these numbers are correct is doubtful. It will take an analysis of the deal to determine the true numbers, and the details have been available for only a short time. But if correct, this ratio falls well short of the stated goals. Two years ago, when agitation for a new round of downtown planing started, boosters spoke of a ratio of 15 to 1. Eventually planners promised a ratio of 5 to 1 private to public investment for downtown. This project, while of course is just a single project and not the entirety of downtown development, doesn’t reach half that goal.

Order of events and media coverage

During the meeting, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) conceded that “the order of events is confusing.”

Before that, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) claimed that there had been much media coverage of the proposed hotel, and that the public was actually getting two opportunities to talk about this project. She said that the media had published information about today’s meeting and the public hearing on September 13th.

Miller is gravely mistaken. Until a Wichita Eagle article on Saturday, I saw no mention of the letter of intent, and no detail of the form of subsidies to be considered for this project. The city’s list of legal notices contains no mention of the action that was taken at this meeting.

Questions not answered

During my remarks to the council, I related how last year the Wichita Eagle alleged that David Burk, the managing member of this project — and I quote here: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

This Eagle article and a companion article went on to quote these people as having trouble with and being concerned, to varying degrees, with Burk’s acts: City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf; City Council member Jeff Longwell; City Council Member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor; then-Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, now on the Sedgwick County Commission; and City Manager Robert Layton.

In particular, the manager said, according to the Eagle, that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. Despite the fact that nearly all the property taxes Burk pays directly enriches himself and only him, he still doesn’t want to pay them. And according to the Wichita Eagle — not me — he engaged in deception in order to reduce them.

None of the four people in the council chambers — Rebenstorf, Longwell, Williams, and Layton — explained their apparent change of mind with regard to Burk’s acts.

Burk, who addressed the council immediately after I asked if he cared to explain his actions, decided to avoid the issue. In his shoes, I probably would have done the same, as there is no justification for the acts the Eagle accused him of doing. He, and his political and bureaucratic enablers in Wichita city hall, have to hope this issue fades.

Campaign contributions

Council member O’Donnell asked about a parking garage to be built at a cost of $6 million to the city: Will the city be putting this project out to competitive bid? Bell replied no, that is the developer’s request. City attorney Rebenstorf added that there is a charter ordinance that exempts these types of projects from bidding requirements.

O’Donnell said that awarding the construction contract to a company that has made campaign contributions to all council members (except him) “seems a little questionable.”

The company in question is Key Construction. Its principals regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates. Similarly, Burke and his wife also frequently make the maximum contribution to city hall candidates.

O’Donnell is correct to publicize these contributions. They emit a foul odor. In our political system, many people make contributions to candidates whose ideology they agree with, be it conservative, liberal, or something else.

But Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is that Schlapp and Longwell, despite their proclamations of fiscal conservatism, have shown themselves to be willing to vote for any form of developer welfare Burk and others have asked for. They create tangled webs of tortured logic to explain their votes. Meitzner, along with his fellow new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita), seems to be following the same path.

Several council members and the mayor took exception to O’Donnell’s raising of this matter. Clendenin, for his part, objected and said that the public has had over 30 days to consider and take exception with this project. This contention, like Miller’s, isn’t supported by any facts that I am aware of. It appears that the first mention of any of the details of the plan and the subsidies is contained in a MAPC agenda that appears to have been created on July 29. Besides not being 30 days in advance, the MAPC agenda is an obscure place to release what Clendenin believes is adequate public notice.

Regarding the issue of campaign contributions, the mayor — without mentioning his name — strongly criticized O’Donnell for bringing up this matter. Many people watching this meeting felt that the extreme reaction of Brewer and others to O’Donnell’s observation reveals a certain uneasiness regarding these contributions. I don’t believe the mayor and council members are taking illegal bribes, although when any city is enriching people with millions of dollars of developer welfare there is always that threat, and in some cities and states such practices are commonplace.

The fact remains, however, that there is a small group of campaign contributors who — over and over — ask for and receive largess from city hall.

The mayor’s criticisms

In his comments, Mayor Brewer accused opponents of providing only partial facts about matters, because the full facts did not support their case. He was referring to my remarks that a lawsuit brought against the city by a party who felt the city had reneged on a letter of intent was litigated all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. In my remarks I didn’t mention who won that case — the city did — and the mayor believes this is an example of slanting the facts.

The mayor went on to make accusations of “grandstanding” from some of the public and “some council members” because there are cameras in the council chambers. He mentioned that news media are present at every meeting and that council meetings are broadcast on television.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In addition, Bill Wilson, the reporter the Wichita Eagle sent to cover the meeting, has a documented bias against the concept of free markets, and against those who believe in them.

The mayor, when delivering his criticism, does not use the names of those he criticizes. It would be useful if he did, but it would mean he has to take greater accountability for his remarks.

Following are links to excerpts of testimony from the meeting — perhaps examples of the “grandstanding” the mayor complained about: John Todd, Shirley Koehn, and Bob Weeks.

Wichita city council to decide between rule of law, or rule by situation

Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting will provide an opportunity for the mayor, council members, and city hall staff to let Wichitans know if our city is governed by the rule of law and proper respect for it, or if these values will be discarded for the convenience of one person and his business partners.

Here’s the situation: a person wants to gain approval of a tax increment financing (TIF) district project plan. This requires a public hearing, which the city has scheduled for September 13th.

But this schedule doesn’t suit the applicant. He has a personal business need — an expiring purchase option — and wants the city to issue a letter of intent stating that the city intends to do all the things that are the subject of the September public hearing.

The letter of intent is not binding, city officials tell us. The council will still have to hold the September public hearing and vote on the incentives the developer wants. And the list of incentives is large, amounting to many millions of dollars. Whether to issue these incentives deserves discussion and a public hearing.

But the letter of intent, in effect, circumvents the public hearing. It reduces the hearing to a meaningless exercise. No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against this project, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I imagine that persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

And the developers are planning to take action based on this letter of intent. To them, the letter does have meaning. If it had no meaning, why would they ask for it?

That bears repeating: If the letter of intent is non-binding, why issue it at all?

The last time someone felt the city reneged on a letter of intent, it resulted in a court case that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. I imagine the city is not anxious to repeat that experience.

Part of the purpose of public hearings and their advance notice, usually 30 days or so, is to give interested parties time to prepare for the hearing. But citizens are given just a few days notice of the proposed letter of intent. The parties who will receive the subsidies, of course, have known about this for some time. Their bureaucratic and political enablers have, too.

The issuance of the letter of intent on Tuesday, if the city council decides to do so, is an affront to the rule of law. It would be a powerful statement by the council that it intends to go ahead with the project and its subsides, public hearing — and citizens — be damned. It is a striking show of arrogance by the city and its political leadership, which is to say Mayor Carl Brewer.

After Tuesday’s meeting we will know one thing. We will know if the Wichita City Council and city staff value the rule of law more than the needs of one small group of people. We won’t really know about individual city staff, but the council members and mayor will have to vote on this item. We’ll know exactly where each of them stands. Expect waffling.

Tuesday provides citizens a chance to learn exactly how the mayor and each council members value the rule of law as compared to the needs of one person and his business partners. It is as simple as that.

The project

The project is the development of a new hotel in an existing building downtown. It sounds like a neat project and would be a great addition to Wichita. But — this project is a product of central government planning backed by massive government intervention in the form of millions of dollars of subsidy. Pretty much all the tools have been tapped in the proposed corporate welfare, even one form that will require the city to pass a special charter ordinance.

The lead developer, David Burk, is well known in Wichita and has produced a number of successful projects. (We must qualify this as “seemingly successful,” as it seems as all of Burk’s projects require some sort of taxpayer involvement and subsidy. So we don’t really know if these projects would be successful if they had to stand on their own.)

I’ve written extensively on the problems with government-directed planning and taxpayer-funded investment in downtown Wichita. See Downtown Wichita regulations on subsidy to be considered or Downtown Wichita revitalization for examples. This project suffers from all these problems.

Furthermore, we see the problems of the public choice theory of politics at play here. Perhaps most prominent is the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. In this case Burk and his partners stand to garner tremendous benefit, while everyone else pays. This is why Burk and his wife are generous campaign donors to both conservative and liberal city politicians.

Burk and past allegations

The involvement of Burk in the project, along with the city’s response, is problematic. City documents indicate that the city has investigated the backgrounds of the applicants for this project. The result is “no significant findings to report.” Evidently the city didn’t look very hard. In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of David Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at the actions of Burk. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act.

According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.’”

Council member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor, was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.’”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

Some of Burk’s partners have a history of dealing with the city that is illustrative of their attitudes. In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. The theater’s owners included David Wells, who is one of Burk’s partners in the project being considered by the council for the letter of intent.

Entrepreneurs are not always successful. Business failure, if handled honestly and honorably, is not shameful.

But when a business is already receiving taxpayer subsidy, and the response to failure is to demand even more from the taxpayer — that is shameful.

Burk and Wells, by the way, played a role in the WaterWalk project, which has a well-deserved reputation as a failed development. In 2011 the city’s budget includes a loss of slightly over one million dollars for the TIF district that has benefited its owners to the tune of over $41 million.

Burk has been personally enriched by city hall action before. An example from the same article: “A 2003 lease agreement gave Burk use of the retail strip at the front of the parking garage for $1 a year for the first five years.” Nearly-free property that you can then lease at market rates is a sweet deal.

These gentlemen have had their bite at the taxpayer-funded apple. Now they want another bite, on their own schedule, without regard to rule of law and the public.

Despite allegations, Wichita’s Dave Burk remains favored

As Wichita proceeds with the redevelopment of its downtown, one developer seems to be on the cutting edge of harvesting corporate welfare — despite his past behavior. Last year this person, Dave Burk of Marketplace Properties, acted in a way the Wichita Eagle described as deceptive in order to reduce his property taxes. Yet, Burk remains a favored developer at city hall, and he’s soon going to ask taxpayers to pay higher taxes for his benefit. These are the same taxes he himself doesn’t like to pay. The following article from February 2010 explains.

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about a well-known Wichita real estate developer that, while shocking, shouldn’t really be all that unexpected.

The opening sentence of the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) tells us most of what we need to know: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

Some might say it’s not surprising that Burk represented himself in the way the Eagle article reports. When a person’s been on the receiving end of so much city hall largess, it’s an occupational hazard.

And when you’ve been the beneficiary of so much Wichita taxpayer money, you might even begin to think that you shouldn’t have to pay so much tax anymore.

At the state level, you might seek over a million dollars of taxpayer money to help you renovate an apartment building.

Burk has certainly laid the groundwork, at least locally. A registered Republican voter, Burk regularly stocks the campaign coffers of Wichita city council members with contributions. These contributions — at least for city council candidates — are apparently made without regard to the political leanings of the candidates. How else can we explain recent contributions made to two city council members who are decidedly left of center: Lavonta Williams and Janet Miller? Burk and his wife made contributions to their campaigns in the maximum amount allowed by law.

This is especially puzzling in light of Burk’s contributions to campaigns at the federal level. There, a search at the Federal Election Commission shows a single contribution of $250 to Todd Tiahrt in 2005.

It’s quite incongruous that someone would contribute to Tiahrt, Williams, and Miller. Except Williams and Miller can — and have — cast votes that directly enrich Burk. Politicians at the federal level don’t have the same ability to do that as do Wichita city council members. Well, at least not considering Wichita city business.

So which is it: is Burk a believer in Republican principles, a believer in good government, or someone who knows where his next taxpayer handout will come from?

Burk’s enablers — these include Wichita’s lobbyist Dale Goter, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation president Jeff Fluhr and chairman Larry Weber, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton, Wichita economic development chief Allen Bell, and most importantly Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and various city council members — now have to decide if they want to continue in their efforts to enrich Burk. Continuing to do so will harm their reputations. The elected officials, should they run for office again, will have to explain their actions to voters.

At the state level, the bill that will enrich Burk will likely be voted on in the Kansas Senate this week. Then, similar action may take place in the Kansas House of Representatives. Let’s hope they read the Wichita Eagle in Topeka.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday January 31, 2011

Some downtown Wichita properties plummet in value. A strategy of Real Development — the “Minnesota Guys” — in Wichita has been to develop and sell floors of downtown office buildings as condominiums. Some of these floors have been foreclosed upon and have come back on the market. Some once carried mortgages of $400,000 or more, meaning that at one point a bank thought they were worth at least that much. But now four floors in the Broadway Plaza Building, three floors of the Petroleum Building, two floors of Sutton Place, and one floor of the Orpheum Office Center are available for sale at prices not much over $100,000, ranging from $14 to $25 per square foot. Other downtown office buildings — very plain properties — are listed at much higher prices. For example, one downtown property is listed at $82 per square foot. … Some of these floors have had declining appraisals. According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer, the fifth floor of Sutton Place, which is listed for sale at $135,000, was appraised in 2008 for $530,900. In 2009 the appraised value dropped to $215,000.

Kansas Days. The primary news made at this year’s Kansas Days gathering was the election of Todd Tiahrt to replace Mike Pompeo as national committeeman. Otherwise, there was a large turnout in Topeka with many receptions and meals that provided opportunities to meet officeholders and new friends, and to reacquaint with old friends from across the state. Plus, I got to sample the “Brownback” beer. It’s pretty good.

Williams named to national economic development committee. From Wichita Business Journal: “Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams has been named to a National League of Cities steering committee on Community and Economic Development Policy and Advocacy.” Undoubtedly for her unfailing support of any form of corporate welfare that comes before the Wichita City Council.

Mises University this summer. If you’re a college student and would like to receive instruction in Austrian Economics — “a rigorous and logical approach to economics that gives free markets their due and takes full account of the reality of human choice” — I suggest applying to the Ludwig von Mises Institute to attend Mises University this summer. I attended as a member observer in 2007, and it was a wonderful and very intense week. For more information, click on Mises University 2011. Scholarships are available.

A Rosa Parks moment for education. Kevin Huffman in the Washington Post: “Last week, 40-year-old Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was released after serving nine days in jail on a felony conviction for tampering with records. Williams-Bolar’s offense? Lying about her address so her two daughters, zoned to the lousy Akron city schools, could attend better schools in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district. … In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school. But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy.” Kansas has no school choice programs to speak of, and so far Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has not expressed advocacy for school choice.

The state against blacks. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley interviews economist Walter E. Williams on the occasion of the publication of his most recent book Up from the Projects: An Autobiography. The reason for the article’s title: “‘The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do,’ Mr. Williams says. ‘And that is to destroy the black family.’” … On economics and why it is important, Riley writes: “Over the decades, Mr. Williams’s writings have sought to highlight ‘the moral superiority of individual liberty and free markets,’ as he puts it. ‘I try to write so that economics is understandable to the ordinary person without an economics background.’ His motivation? ‘I think it’s important for people to understand the ideas of scarcity and decision-making in everyday life so that they won’t be ripped off by politicians,’ he says. ‘Politicians exploit economic illiteracy.’” … On the current state of politics: “Mr. Williams says he hopes that the tea party has staying power, but ‘liberty and limited government is the unusual state of human affairs. The normal state throughout mankind’s history is for him to be subject to arbitrary abuse and control by government..”

Professor Cornpone. From The Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook: “The last time these columns were lambasted by a presidential candidate in Iowa, he was Democrat Richard Gephardt and the year was 1988. The Missouri populist won the state caucuses in part on the rallying cry that ‘we’ve got to stop listening to the editorial writers and the establishment,’ especially about ethanol and trade. Imagine our amusement to find Republican Newt Gingrich joining such company. The former Speaker blew through Des Moines last Tuesday for the Renewable Fuels Association summit, and his keynote speech to the ethanol lobby was as pious a tribute to the fuel made from corn and tax dollars as we’ve ever heard. Mr. Gingrich explained that ‘the big-city attacks’ on ethanol subsidies are really attempts to deny prosperity to rural America … Yet today this now-mature industry enjoys far more than cash handouts, including tariffs on foreign competitors and a mandate to buy its product. Supporters are always inventing new reasons for these dispensations, like carbon benefits (nonexistent, according to the greens and most scientific evidence) and replacing foreign oil (imports are up). … Given that Mr. Gingrich aspires to be President, his ethanol lobbying raises larger questions about his convictions and judgment.” Another advocate for the ethanol boondoggle, and perhaps again a presidential candidate, is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.

Politics and city managers to be topic. This Friday (February 4) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features as its speaker H. Edward Flentje, Professor at the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, Wichita State University. His topic will be “The Political Roots of City Managers in Kansas.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Wednesdays in Wiedemann this week. Wednesday (February 2) Wichita State University’s Lynne Davis presents an organ recital as part of the “Wednesdays in Wiedemann” series. These recitals, which have no admission charge, start at 5:30 pm and last about 30 minutes. The location is Wiedemann Recital Hall (map) on the campus of Wichita State University. For more about Davis and WSU’s Great Marcussen Organ, see my story from earlier this year.

Government bird chirping. American Majority’s Beka Romm wonders about the wisdom of a mayor’s plan to broadcast bird songs on the city’s streets, and how we can decide whether government should be doing things like this.